The moment of panic. The door’s kicked in and the______has been taken. The vacuum of feeling at the heart of surprise. I am trapped in that space, surrounded by shapes who move in a senseless rhythm. I can’t see their faces, but I think I can tell what they’re doing. One is in the middle of______another administering a______. Let them know, the current threat level is______.
—Ben Roosevelt’s press release*
Typically I don’t “write” my most thought-provoking ideas at a computer or a typewriter. My body generally creates stories while I’m in motion—walking, doing nothing in particular but moving through an indifferent environment. Art historian Briony Fer makes a similar evaluation when she discusses Marcel Proust’s nocturnal descriptions in Swann’s Way.
In this passage, Fer references the frightening “irreality” that Proust’s protagonist experiences when he wakes up at night:
One is the subject enwrapped, shrouded, maybe entrapped; the other is the subject entranced by the tableau. Proust’s essay lurches between … a heightened sensory awareness of things, space, body, the subject as pure sense-instrument and, on the other hand, a separation or loss of connection, a kind of willful elimination from the scene of fantasy in which one is enmeshed. The tableau cuts the continuity of experience.
As capricious and immaterial as they are, ideas and imagination have the ability to distort, or even define, experience. Philosophers who postulate the contradictions of human thought often mention the paradox of scary movies. Since we know they are fictional, why are we still frightened by them? Furthermore, how does a fictional narrative have the capacity to include us in it?
Part of the explanation lies in what Fer (and most of the art world) calls a tableau. Ben Roosevelt’s exhibition “______is Not Always a Bad Thing” at Get This! Gallery combines the subtler dimensions of fear and entrapment with the nature of tableau. As the exhibit’s title suggests, Roosevelt uses narrative ambiguity to interrupt the continuity of experience and, thereby, allow his audience to write their own story. The strategic omissions in his title and artist statement* provide gaps into which the viewer can project their feelings. These barriers or willful eliminations also mark the story’s artificiality. This “chicanery in absentia” relies in part on horror vacui, or the aversion of empty space.
Roosevelt’s exhibition engulfs the viewer: an alarming orange frieze circumscribes the room. In fact, gallery owner Lloyd Benjamin confirms that, according to the paint shop, the paint color’s name is indeed “Alarming Orange.” Within the orange band—on each of the four walls of the gallery—are three ostensibly subsidiary sculptural vignettes: Legion, Properties, and Tidings.
The first two sculpture series, Legion and Properties, demonstrate Roosevelt’s penchant for cutouts. Presented in two horizontal rows that cover three walls of the gallery, Legion is a series of figures in laser-cut, birch wood silhouettes. They seem alive against their orange backdrop, but are simultaneously irritating, iconic, and indifferent. This indifference extends to Properties, a set of small steel sculptures on an adjacent wall. Properties uses the same visual strategy of economy; here the precise silhouettes of the houses nestle stubbornly into and onto their incongruous orange environment. In combination with Tidings—a row of fussy framed drawings that provide another arbitrary but psychologically taut interruption in narration—these sculptures create an orchestrated discontinuity.
The cumulative sense of indifference approaches climax and finds its apogee in Roosevelt’s central sculpture Forcefield, a cross section of a door that has been kicked-in on both sides. The work resides rather monolithically amongst and within its sculptural surroundings. The sculpture’s edges are literally and conceptually indistinct, especially in contrast to the blaring orange band. Forcefield is the embodiment of the potential action and ambiguous narrative horizon that defines tableau (as discussed by Briony Fer and others). The visual residue of this action—the double-crushed door handles—allows the viewer to become part of the scene. The door’s mirror-like reverse side signifies the inscrutability of a narrative already set in motion: We simply cannot escape this open and inviting spectacle.
Roosevelt’s tableau creates drama on several levels. The sculptural elements and the gallery space itself is transformed into an artificial narrative site, where each story element interacts with and interrupts the others. Still, the site specificity of art objects allows us to savor the real-time benefits of standing in an actual (and mental) gallery space, punctuated by real art objects. Despite its “modernistic staleness,” this aesthetic is still effective for me, especially when aided and abetted by the concept of tableau. The exhibition may not be the most submersive gallery experience ever, but somehow the show provides me with enough cues to “write” myself into its story—I can both create my experience and be created by it.
*[NOTE] The text of Roosevelt’s press release was created by Chris Fite-Wassilak, a London-based curator and writer.
“______is Not Always a Bad Thing” continues at Get This! Gallery through April 18.